The race to the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs ends up a bit more one-dimensional this year than in select past seasons in that there’s really only one story to follow: the race-winning spoiler.
Entering the final regular season race of 2017 at Richmond Raceway, 13 drivers have punched their ticket into the 16-spot playoffs thanks to a win at some point in the season. The next three drivers who would make it in — Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray — have substantial-enough points leads on the rest of the field that, if either they or one of those 13 winners ended up in Victory Lane at Richmond, they’d have a berth in the playoffs via their points position, no problem.
Meaning that there isn’t really a race for points. Well, kind of. It gets a little convoluted when imagining someone who isn’t one of those 13 winners or the three aforementioned drivers winning a race, because should that occur, the matter of who gets in with one of the last two spots ends up falling to either Elliott, Kenseth or McMurray, and they’re all separated by a total of three points. If, say, Aric Almirola were to make a hail mary attempt at the win like in 2015 and looked to be on the road to succeeding this time, chances are there’d be plenty of scrambling on the parts of those three.
The point is, though, that there isn’t a four- or even five-person race for the wild card positions in the way that there might have been in the past. Clint Bowyer, who would be the driver in on points if there had been just 12 different winners in 2017 and said driver who didn’t win was behind him in points, sits an insurmountable 91 markers behind McMurray, meaning there’d be no chance of a zero-win season snagging him a spot, barring some kind of enormous point penalty on one of the wild card contenders that just isn’t likely to happen to the extent he’d need it.
With that in mind, the win-and-you’re-in mentality may be more prevalent than ever Saturday night, Sept. 9. No driver except the 13 with victories (that count toward the playoffs, at least) can rest on their laurels, coasting through to a playoff berth, unless someone like Kyle Busch laps the field a dozen times, in which case Elliott, Kenseth and McMurray will breathe easy. Saturday’s likely to be an evening of gutsy passes, last-ditch efforts and — if we’re lucky — some end-of-the-race fireworks, not counting whatever post-race entertainment Richmond has planned.
A number on the way to two dozen will be eligible to win their way into the playoffs (including those currently in on points), but only one — if any at all – can emerge victorious. Here are the five most likely to do so.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
One would not have been wise to slot Dale Earnhardt Jr. so low on this list (though in said list’s defense, at least he’s on there!) a decade ago, when he had three wins to his name in 15 starts at the track through 2006. Problem is that win count, which hasn’t increased since. In fact, Earnhardt has just four top 10s at Richmond in the 2010s, led by a runner-up result at the 2012 spring race. It’s his early dominance — coupled with it being his final chance to make the playoffs in his last NASCAR season, which could beget a risk or two — that lands him at No. 5, but he’ll need to rear back and rediscover some of that early form to have a real shot.
4. Erik Jones
Every other driver on this list has a win at Richmond. And a top five. And a top 10. Erik Jones has none of these things; in fact, the only thing he has in common with the others in Cup competition is a start at the track at all, and he has just one to his name, occurring earlier this year. He finished 38th, completing just four laps after a crash. Nonetheless, you can’t count out Jones, not when he’s been running as well as he has as of late (five straight top 10s, three straight top fives), especially following his runner-up result at Bristol Motor Speedway, one of the circuit’s other short tracks. He’s on a roll, and he has three top fives in four XFINITY starts at the track. Something’s brewing.
3. Matt Kenseth
Of this group, Matt Kenseth may be resting the easiest leading up to Richmond, since he’s presently in the playoffs as a wild card entrant due to his points position. But a win by someone not already in the playoffs can easily destroy that comfort, so one can bet the driver of the No. 20 won’t be content with simply making laps. He’s got a 16.1 average finish at the track along with two wins, nine top fives and 16 top 10s — not-too-shabby numbers, and unlike Earnhardt, one of those wins even came in the last decade, scoring a victory at this race two years ago. He even added a pole earlier this year.
2. Joey Logano
He’s probably the angriest of the bunch, isn’t he? Closest to something resembling anger or disquiet, at least. That’s because Joey Logano would be in the playoffs already if it weren’t for his encumbered finish at Richmond earlier this year that saw his win erased from being used for playoff contention. But that’s the thing: Yeah, Logano hasn’t been amazing since then, but he not only won the only other Richmond race this season, but he also has seven straight top 10s at the track, four of which were top fives and two of which were wins. He’s good at Richmond, y’all. You can’t count him out.
1. Clint Bowyer
Who’s hungriest for a win Saturday? Clint Bowyer would be a great place to start. He’s at the point where he’s no longer going to race his way in on points in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, so in order for his season in the No. 14 to not seem like a bit of a letdown all together, he needs a win — and really, it should probably come before the playoffs begin, unless rebuilding for 2018 is more your speed (and Bowyer doesn’t strike one as that type). In 23 starts at Richmond, he has two wins, four top fives and 12 top 10s for a 12.9 average finish, so the speed and results are there throughout the years. SHR isn’t likely to be content with just two of its four cars making the playoffs, either. All bets are off now for Bowyer since he can’t catch McMurray, Kenseth and Elliott. Let’s see what he can do.